First lady: Teach diversity to others

 

First Lady Michelle Obama told high school graduates in Topeka, Kansas that they could keep the legacy of the Brown v. Board of Education decision alive by battling everyday racism, from stereotypes to hateful jokes.

"When you encounter folks who still hold the old prejudices because they’ve only been around folks like themselves, when you meet folks who think they know all the answers because they’ve never heard any other viewpoints, it is up to you to help them see things differently," the first lady said.

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The first lady's remarks came a day before the 60th anniversary of the Brown ruling, when parents in the Topeka school district successfully sued to overturn a regime of institutional segregation.

Obama said it was possible that the students "take the diversity you're surrounded by for granted."

"You’ve watched TV shows with characters of every background, and when you see a show like The Walking Dead, you don’t think it’s about a black woman, a black guy, an Asian-American guy, a gay couple, and some white people – you think it’s about a bunch of folks trying to escape some zombies, end of story," Obama said. "And when some folks got all worked up about a cereal commercial with an interracial family, you all were probably thinking, 'Really, what’s the problem with that?'”

But the first lady said that even if students were befuddled by their elders who expressed concern over gay athletes like Jason Collins or Michael Sam, they had a responsibility to push for inclusion in their own lives.

"You all can make a difference every day in your own lives simply by teaching others the lessons you’ve learned here in Topeka," the first lady said. "Maybe that starts in your own family, when grandpa tells that awkward joke at Thanksgiving or your aunt says something about 'those people,' and you politely inform them that they’re talking about your friends."

The first lady invoked her own history, growing up in segregated Chicago, as evidence of how much progress could be made in a lifetime. 

"If you ever start to get tired, if you ever think about giving up, I want you to remember that journey from a segregated school in Topeka all the way to the White House," Obama said.

The first lady's speech had originally been scheduled for a graduation ceremony on Saturday, but some students protested her appearance because security restrictions would have limited how many family members could attend. The White House subsequently announced that the first lady would instead speak at the senior recognition event one day earlier.

Obama did not make reference to the dustup in her planned remarks.

At the White House, President Obama met privately Friday night with attorneys and family members of the plaintiffs linked to the landmark case. Obama planned to "thank them for their strong commitment to making sure our nation has a fair and equal education system for people of all backgrounds and encourage them to continue that fight for future generations," according to a White House official.